Communication breakdown: How to speak goldfish through visual content

Columbia Records’ Art Director, Alex Steinweiss’ decision to replace standard vinyl record sleeves with cover art in 1938 transformed musical culture. Traditionally focused on auditory stimulation, graphics served as an additional source of expression. The influence of iconic album covers goes far beyond the reaction generated at first glance, providing viewers with instant recognition of the band, their music and accompanying emotions.

For example, Led Zeppelin’s notable debut album depicted how Keith Moon of ‘The Who’ joked of how popular the band would be; that it would probably go over “like a lead balloon” (or “…a lead zeppelin!” as bandmate John Entwistle responded). The controversial cover depicting the Hindenburg airship crash undeniably served as an unforgettable first impression to the extraordinary, world-rocking sounds within.

The proliferation of visuals in music and everyday culture continued. Norms in technology & digital media in the 21st century have further impacted how we are interacting with and consuming information. Icon-based navigation on mobile devices subtly prepared digital users to rely on visuals to complete daily tasks and thoughts. Personalized media platforms such as Pinterest, Instagram and Vine experienced explosive growth by utilizing the power of brief and impactful visual content. Google even launched a trial of a visual inbox, advocating that it will “help you find what you’re looking for faster”.

The speed and accessibility of attaining information has increased the normalcy of multi-tasking throughout our day. Today, having “the attention span of a goldfish” is sadly a compliment. The average human attention span is now 8 seconds- one second shy of our bowl-dwelling, pet store staple.

A declining attention span paired with an increased dependence on graphical information supports prioritization of a visual strategy for any brand attempting to effectively communicate information to their audience.

In the inbox, visual content can provide compelling methods to (1) Inform (2) Entertain and (3) Entice Action from customers.

  • Inform: If product differentiation is mainly focused on tactile benefits, an animated gif or video may articulate those benefits in the quickest and most captivating fashion. Tom’s adequately communicates benefits of their new ‘durable’ sunglasses with visual animation. The copy of ‘long lasting comfort and durability’ is supplemental given the power of the visual included. Toms2Sunglasses_Gif2
  • Entertain: Digital consumers seek entertainment on screens of all sizes. Poncho maintains a favorable ‘click-to-smile ratio’ by providing customers with relatively standard information in a highly entertaining format. Content tone, format and visual components provide a highly unique experience for readers in result. I personally will consider abandoning the standard weather app on my phone if it means a daily dose of entertainment as I check the forecast (confession: I was hands-down sold after the first Seinfeld reference).

poncho1       poncho2SummerofGeorge


  • Entice action:  Is website traffic a top KPI? Think of how visuals can get customers where you want them to go quicker. Let’s take the email header as an example. The standard brand logo placement alongside a ‘Having trouble viewing images? Click here” hyperlink is a tragic oversight of the true potential this high-value real-estate has to offer. Utilizing this space for visual call to action buttons brings significantly more value to both desktop and mobile viewers


In many cases, imagery should be the focal point that is supported by copy as opposed to the inverse. A squint-worthy thumbnail image paired with a block of text will no longer serve to attract a customer’s scanning eye. Content developers will only maximize potential engagement when they keep information consumption experiences at the forefront of their strategy.

While the style of visual content may vary based on your brand guidelines (not all brands can casually include “Summer of George” references like Poncho), all content marketers should keep three key points in mind:

  1. Customers must be able to scan. Leverage visuals to quickly present key information to readers, regardless of device.
  2. Make your main message easily identifiable by prioritizing imagery and utilizing text for support - not the other way around.
  3. Apply more sophisticated visual content for more complex themes, optimize visual treatment through testing.  


So ask yourself, how easily can viewers consume your content within a few seconds?  Is your main message effectively communicated with visuals, or is it at risk of ‘going over like a lead balloon’?